Possession (1981 film)

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Possession film cover.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byAndrzej Żuławski
Produced byMarie-Laure Reyre
Written by
Music byAndrzej Korzyński
CinematographyBruno Nuytten
Edited by
  • Marie-Sophi Dubus
  • Suzanne Lang-Willar
Distributed byGaumont
Release date
  • 27 May 1981 (1981-05-27) (Cannes)
Running time
97 minutes (edited version)
124 minutes (original cut)
West Germany
Box office$1.1 million[1]

Possession is a 1981 psychological horror drama film directed by Andrzej Żuławski, written by Żuławski and Frederic Tuten, and starring Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill. The plot obliquely follows the relationship between an international spy and his wife, who begins exhibiting increasingly disturbing behavior after asking him for a divorce.

Possession, an international co-production between France and West Germany, was filmed in Berlin in 1980. The film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival, where Adjani won the award for Best Actress for her performance. It was Żuławski's only English-language film. In recent years, it has developed a cult following.[2]


Mark is a spy who returns home to Berlin from a mysterious espionage mission to find that his wife, Anna, wants a divorce. She won't say why but insists it's not because she found someone else. Mark reluctantly turns the apartment and custody of their young son, Bob, over to her. After recovering from a destructive drinking spree, he visits the apartment to find Bob alone, unkempt, and neglected. When Anna returns, he stays with Bob, refusing to leave her alone with the child but attempts to make amends. Anna leaves in the middle of the night.

Mark receives a phone call from Anna's lover, Heinrich, telling him that Anna is with him. The next day, Mark meets Bob's teacher, Helen; she inexplicably looks identical to Anna but with green eyes. Mark visits and fights Heinrich, then beats Anna at home, after which she flees. The next morning, they have another argument during which they both cut themselves with an electric knife.

A private investigator hired by Mark follows Anna and discovers she has a second flat in a derelict apartment building. He finds a bizarre creature in the bedroom and Anna kills him with a broken bottle. Zimmerman, the lover of the now-dead detective, goes to the flat himself, where he finds the creature and his lover's body. Anna beats Zimmerman in a rage before stealing his gun and shooting him to death.

Anna continues her erratic behavior and recounts to Mark a violent miscarriage she suffered in the subway while he was gone. She claims it resulted in a nervous breakdown; during the miscarriage, she oozed blood and fluids from her orifices and ominously tells him she "miscarried Sister Faith, and what left was Sister Chance." Heinrich visits Anna and discovers the creature as well as a collection of dismembered body parts in her refrigerator. She attacks him, and Heinrich flees, bleeding.

Heinrich calls Mark and begs him to pick him up. Mark stops by Anna's apartment first and discovers the body parts; the creature, however, is gone. Mark meets Heinrich at the bar where he is, murders him, and stages it as an accidental death. He then lights Anna's apartment on fire before fleeing on Heinrich's motorcycle. At home, he finds her friend Margie's corpse outside. He drags the body inside where Anna greets him, and the two have sex in the kitchen. Afterward, he makes plans to cover up Margie's death. Heinrich's mother phones Mark asking about her son. When he goes to meet with her, she commits suicide by poisoning herself.

The next day, as Mark wanders the street, he meets up with his former business associates. He is evasive and returns to Margie's apartment to find it surrounded by police and his former employers. He stages a distraction, allowing someone, possibly Anna, to sneak away in his car, but he is wounded in the ensuing shootout. Fleeing, he has a horrific accident and races into a building where he is pursued by Anna, the police, and his business associates. Anna tells him, "It is finished now," and reveals the creature, now fully formed as Mark's doppelgänger. Mark raises his gun to shoot it but he and Anna are gunned down by a hail of bullets from the police below. Bloodied and dying, Anna lies atop Mark and uses his gun to shoot herself. She dies in his arms and he jumps to his death through the stairwell. The doppelgänger flees through the roof.

Later, Helen is at the flat babysitting Bob when the doorbell rings. Bob implores her not to open the door, but Helen ignores him. From outside, the sound of sirens, planes, and explosions fill the air. Bob races through the flat into the bathroom, where he floats in the bathtub face-down as though dead. The silhouette of the doppelgänger is seen from the frosted glass door. Helen stares, her brilliant green eyes illuminating.



Numerous film critics have noted the theme of separation and marital disintegration as core themes in Possession. Scholar Bartłomiej Paszylk notes that the metaphors present in the film also represent "a disintegrating country. The very fact that the film takes place in Cold War-era West Berlin is quite significant for the metaphor of divorce—the wall that separates it from East Berlin being a symbol of disconnection of what was once united—but Zulawski's additional intention might have been for the Berlin wall to symbolize the Iron Curtain, and for Germany to symbolize Poland, a country he had to leave in order to keep making movies."[3]


It was filmed in West Berlin. The director has stated that he wrote the screenplay in the midst of a messy divorce.[citation needed] Special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi assisted in creating the tentacle creature featured in the film.[4]

The shoot was emotionally exhausting for Adjani, and it was rumored that she attempted suicide after filming completed.[5]

Viewers have found it difficult to properly classify it as drama, horror, or suspense, though elements of all three are present in the movie.[6]


Box office[edit]

The film had a modest total of 541,120 admissions in France.[7] Possession was released in a heavily-edited 81-minute cut in the United States.[8] The film grossed $1.1 million at the U.S. box office.[1]

Critical response[edit]

Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote, "Possession is a veritable carnival of nose bleeds. Because the three leading characters – Anna, her husband, Marc (Sam Neill), and her lover, Heinrich (Heinz Bennent) – all knock each other violently around, they play most of their scenes in one state of bloodiness or another. At times, the living-color Possession recalls Roman Polanski's black-and-white Repulsion, though only because Miss Adjani is required to slice up as many male victims as Catherine Deneuve did in the earlier, far better film."[9] Derek Malcolm of The Guardian described Adjani's performance in the film as "Grand guignol plus," adding that while he felt Żuławski had talent, "what he does with it here makes The Exorcist look like a masterpiece."[10]

Variety said, "Possession starts on a hysterical note, stays there and surpasses it as the film progresses. There are excesses on all fronts: in supposedly ordinary married life and then occult happenings, intricate political skulduggery with the infamous Berlin Wall as background – they all abound in this horror-cum-political-cum-psychological tale."[11] Reviewing the film after its screening at the San Francisco International Film Festival, Wayman Wong of The San Francisco Examiner panned the film as a "sick and violent piece of trash."[12]

Leonard Maltin wrote of the film: "Adjani "creates" a monster, to the consternation of husband Neill, lover Bennent—and the viewer," ultimately deeming the film a "confusing drama of murder, horror, intrigue, though it's all attractively directed."[8]

Home media[edit]

After an initial limited theatre release in the United Kingdom, the film was banned as one of the notorious "video nasties," although it was later released uncut on VHS and DVD in 2000 by Anchor Bay Entertainment.[13][14] In 2014, Mondo Vision released a region-free Blu-ray of the film featuring the uncut version of the film.[15] This release was available in a standard special edition, as well as a limited edition numbered to 2,000 units.[15]


In 1981, Isabelle Adjani won the award for Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival for Possession and Quartet. Adjani also won the year's César Award for Best Actress for her performance in the film, and also won the Award for Best Actress at the Fantasporto Film Festival, in Portugal.[citation needed]


In the years following its release, Possession accrued a cult following. Film scholar Bartłomiej Paszylk deemed it "one of the most enigmatic and uncompromising horror movies in the history of cinema."[3] Writer Kim Newman considers Possession to be a "kitsch film," noting: "Zulawski takes his film too seriously, but it's fun all the same...[he] goes mad with his swooping camera, has everything in shot painted in blue and encourages his stars to attack their roles with a kind of stylised hysteria rare outside Japanese theatre."[16] Newman also likened elements of Adjani's character to that of Samantha Eggar in The Brood (1979).[16]

Michael Brooke of Sight & Sound commented in 2011, "Although it's easy to see why it was pigeonholed as a horror film, its first half presents what is still one of the most viscerally vivid portraits of a disintegrating relationship yet committed to film, comfortably rivalling Lars von Trier's Antichrist, David Cronenberg's The Brood and Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage."[17] Reviewing the Blu-ray release of the movie in 2013, Michael Dodd of Bring The Noise was similarly impressed with what he called "an intense exploration of marital breakdown". He argued that this made Possession "one of the few horror films that successfully builds a back story for its main characters".[18]

On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, Possession holds an approval rating of 85% based on 2019 reviews, and an average rating of 7.69/10. Its consensus reads, "Blending genres as effectively as it subverts expectations, Possession uses powerful acting and disquieting imagery to grapple with complex themes."[19]

The film was ranked #2 on WatchMojo.com's countdown of "Top 10 Scariest Horror Movies You Probably Haven't Seen", being described as "Suspiria on acid".[20]


  1. ^ a b "Possession (1983)". The Numbers. Retrieved 19 March 2018.
  2. ^ Wilkins, Budd (29 November 2011). "Possession: Film Review". Slant Magazine. Retrieved 10 June 2014.
  3. ^ a b Paszylk 2009, p. 163.
  4. ^ Freer, Ian (12 August 2012). "The Genius of Carlo Rambdali". Empire. Retrieved 12 March 2016.
  5. ^ Sen, Mayukh (27 June 2016). "Some Ways of Looking at Isabelle Adjani". Toronto International Film Festival. Archived from the original on 29 July 2016.
  6. ^ [Unknown author] (2 December 2011). "Film Review: Possession". Film Journal International. Retrieved 19 March 2018.
  7. ^ "Possession". JP's Box-Office. Retrieved 19 March 2018.
  8. ^ a b Maltin 1994, p. 1022.
  9. ^ Canby, Vincent (28 October 1983). "Possession". The New York Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved 23 April 2011.
  10. ^ Malcolm, Derek (24 June 1982). "No sex, please..." The Guardian. London. p. 11 – via Newspapers.com.
  11. ^ Variety Staff (13 October 1983). "Possession". Variety. Penske Business Media. Retrieved 23 April 2011.
  12. ^ Wong, Wayman (17 October 1981). "This 'Possession' isn't worth keeping". The San Francisco Examiner. San Francisco, California. p. 8 – via Newspapers.com.
  13. ^ "Possession VHS". Amazon. Retrieved 8 August 2019.
  14. ^ "Possession DVD". Amazon. Retrieved 8 August 2019.
  15. ^ a b Vijn, Ard (7 July 2014). "Blu-ray Review: The POSSESSION Release By Mondo Vision Owns All Others". Screen Anarchy. Archived from the original on 9 August 2019.
  16. ^ a b Newman 2011, p. 190.
  17. ^ Brooke, Michael. "Possession". Sight & Sound. Archived from the original on 14 May 2011. Retrieved 23 April 2011.
  18. ^ Dodd, Michael. "FILM REVIEW: Possession". Bring the Noise UK. Archived from the original on 23 September 2015. Retrieved 19 March 2018.
  19. ^ "Possession (The Night the Screaming Stops) (1983)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved 2 October 2019.
  20. ^ "Top 10 Scariest Horror Movies You Probably Haven't Seen". YouTube. WatchMojo.com. 10 June 2019. Retrieved 4 July 2019.


External links[edit]